by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz)
Excerpted from an entry on "Judaism” written for the Hebrew New World Encyclopedia (1984).
A translation from the original Hebrew.
Hasidism is a religious and philosophical movement taking place in Judaism during the last few centuries. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer is considered the founder of Hasidism. He began to spread his teachings in public in 1734, and is known as the Baal Shem Tov, (meaning "Of Highest Repute,” often used for spiritual leaders with deep Kabbalistic knowledge). After his death, he was replaced by his great disciple, Rabbi Dov of Mezeritch (also known as The Maggid), who expanded the Hasidic movement, garnering masses of adherents throughout the Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. Many of the Hasidim (adherents of Hasidism) were yeshiva deans, teachers, and ritual slaughterers, whose positions influenced entire communities, expanding Hasidism tremendously.
At the time, other prominent sages feared Hasidism because they associated it with the Sabbatean heresy and began to fight it by all means. [The Sabbatean heresy refers to Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676), a rabbi who was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah in 1665.]
These opponents were termed Mitnagdim, which means "opponents,” and were led by the Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, who imposed a severe boycott on Hasidism and anyone who joined its movement. As a result, Hasidim were persecuted across the board. This [culture war] reached its zenith when some of the more radical opponents went so far as to become informants on Hasidic leaders to Russian authorities. After a series of arrests and investigations, the Hasidim did manage to prove that they were not a new sect of Judaism, and were not out to overturn the essence of Judaism and the Jewish people. By moderating some of their extreme elements, and perpetuating the pursuit of peace and nonviolence, they succeeded in making the Mitnagdim leaders reconsider their outright opposition to Hasidism. By the 1830’s, both sides had reached a workable understanding [of acceptance] - which exists until today - [of their differing philosophical approaches within Judaism.]
As the Enlightenment set in, the Hasidic movement continued to expand, eventually encompassing the vast majority of Polish Jews in Galicia, Ukraine, White Russia, Romania, and Hungary. All told, most of Eastern European Jewry went under the wing of Hasidism. That having been said, most Lithuanian Jews remained opposed. As well, of note, Hasidism did not expand to Western Europe, most notably not reaching Germany and the Netherlands, [two areas with large Jewish populations].
After Rabbi Dov of Mezeritch (The Maggid) passed away (and his direct successor immigrated to Israel) some of his other great disciple rabbis took Hasidic leadership of their respective Eastern European areas, each one fashioning his own flavor of Hasidism.
[The central, spiritual leader of a Hasidic sect is called a Rebbe. Here is a sample list of several of the original prominent Rebbes]:
-The descendants of the Maggid of Mezeritch, who later moved to Galicia and Romania, brought Hasidic teachings in their own right.
-Rebbe Aaron of Karlin and his disciples turned to the areas on the border of Lithuania and established a passionate Hasidic system.
-Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and his cohorts, strengthened the Hasidism in Ukraine, where it adopted a particularly cordial, popular approach.
-Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi turned to White Russia and founded Chabad Hasidism, which eventually engaged most of the Jews of White Russia with a method that was both emotional and insightful. Today Chabad maintains thousands of centers throughout the world, from large, prominent cities to remote areas.
-Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (and his brother Rebbe Zusha [of Hanipol]) and their many disciples won the hearts of Jews all over Poland. The disciples of Rebbe Elimelech - Rebbes Yehoshua of Apta, Menachem of Riminov, and especially Rebbe Ya'akov Yitzchak (the "Seer" of Lublin) brought Hasidism to all parts of Poland, Galicia and Russian Poland.
-Some of the grandchildren of the Baal Shem Tov fostered extremely influential paths. A primary example is his great-grandson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslev, [whose influence can be tangibly seen every Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShana) when tens of thousands make pilgrimage to his grave in Uman, Ukraine, per his request in his writings.]
-The fervent dynasties of Przysucha and Kotzk, and their dynastic descendants, were the leaders of Polish-Russian Jewry.
-Rebbe Pinchas of Frankfurt did not succeed in expanding Hasidism locally, yet his students became leaders of Hasidism in other areas.